The potential targets are scattered and hidden all over Iran. They range from a uranium mine in the middle of the country to a nuclear power plant on the Persian Gulf coast to a complex in the northwest doing research on the use of atomic science in agriculture. There is an underground uranium-enrichment facility about a three-hour drive south of Tehran, centrifuges spinning outside the holy city of Qum and a precision-tools factory that makes them in Mashhad, way over by the Turkmenistan border. These are nearly a third of the suspected sites for the much prophesied nuclear Iran that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls "an existential threat" to his country.
The threat of an Israeli attack has for years been a component in the international campaign to get Iran to halt its nuclear program--as have ever more stringent economic sanctions. "All options, including military action, should remain on the table," says Colin Kahl, until recently deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, "but force should be a last resort, not a first choice." If it is the final option, would it solve the problem? How much punishment could Israel--or the U.S., for that matter--inflict? And would it be enough to stop Iran from getting the bomb?
A senior Israeli official serving in the country's security apparatus tells TIME that Netanyahu's Cabinet was advised in late September that the Israel Defense Forces lack the ability to deal a decisive blow to Iran's atomic effort. "I informed the Cabinet we have no ability to hit the Iranian nuclear program in a meaningful way," the official quoted a senior commander as saying. "If I get the order, I will do it, but we don't have the ability to hit in a meaningful way."
The key word is meaningful. The working assumption behind Israel's military preparations has been that a strike, to be worth mounting, must delay Tehran's nuclear capabilities by at least two years. But given the wide geographic dispersion of Iran's atomic facilities, combined with the limits of Israel's air armada, the Jewish state can expect to push back the Iranian program by only a matter of months--a year at most, according to the official. He attributes that estimate to the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, which is charged with assessing the likely effect of a strike.
It is not that Israel cannot do damage; it can. The U.S. commitment to keeping Israel's military dominant in the Middle East--in the policymakers' phrase, "Israel's qualitative military edge"--allowed it to lock in on Iran's nuclear ambitions years before most of the world had any clue what Tehran was up to. U.S. military aid, which in 2011 was $3 billion, allowed Israel to lift its gaze beyond its immediate neighbors and begin assembling an arsenal to confront an Iranian threat that Israeli leaders began warning about in the mid-'90s.